Who is Maid Marian? – Storytelling for Everyone

 by Jaime Lee Moyer

Mention Maid Marian and Sherwood Forest in the same breath, and most people think of Robin Hood’s lady love. The forest outlaw and the noble lady are tied together so closely in modern folklore, popular literature, and movies, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Their story is one of the oldest and most enduring of all time, going back hundreds of years. But while Robin Hood is consistently portrayed as the boyish, carefree forest outlaw flaunting authority, Marian’s role in the ballads and tales has constantly changed.

There was no Maid Marian in the early yeoman ballads or the broadside ballads about Robin and his men that followed. A shepherdess named Marian is partnered with a peasant named Robin in early French lyric poetry, but that Robin isn’t an outlaw and doesn’t have the surname of Hood. Marian vanishes from the tales after that.

From the 16th century on, “Lady” Marian returned to the tales and became a fixture in the English outlaw tradition. Robin was still an outlaw, but now he was an outlawed noble fighting the injustices of John Lackland’s rule. As landed nobility in that age, tradition required that Robin had to have a lady by his side. Marian has a title too and when she takes to the woods, she doesn’t have an active part in the stories. She’s there to be desired and lauded for her beauty, fill the role of Robin’s lady, and at times, rescued.

Her character and role in the story continued to evolve and change. Marian became a goddess Diana type huntress in some plays, roaming Sherwood as freely as any of Robin’s men, and just as skilled with a bow. She was as at home in the forest as any of the Merry Men

By the time Ben Jonson’s unfinished play, The Sad Shepherd, was published in the mid-1600’s, her character had evolved even further. Jonson made it clear that Marian and Robin had a loving, sexual relationship. Marian becomes more than a possession; she becomes Robin’s willing and eager lover.

Over the centuries Marian was depicted as weak, then as a stronger woman. By the early 1900s her role in any of Robin Hood’s stories was fading again. Early films showed Marian as a spirited, flapper like young woman who usually ended up in trouble and needed to be rescued. The trope of being overpowered and needing to be rescued, no matter how capable Marian might be, is a stereotype that continued well into the 1990s.

Novels have done the most to move Marian toward feminism and being her own person, valued for who she is and what she can do, not solely for how she looks. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws Of Sherwood has a high-born Marian winning the archery tournament disguised as Robin Hood. In The Forestwife by Theresa Tomlinson, Marion Holt escapes a forced marriage by fleeing to the forest and becomes the Forestwife, offering help to poor women. Along the way she gains the help of a poor peasant named Robin.

It’s fair to say that the role of Marian in any given play, ballad, or novel has reflected the changing role of women in society over the centuries. Marian has been a wife, a mother, a partner fighting at Robin’s side, an eternally chase maiden and a sexually mature woman. She’s been the property of men and fiercely independent, front and center in the ongoing narrative, and a vague background figure.

Robin’s noble yeoman has been virtually carved in stone for centuries, but Marian’s character is a bit of a chameleon. That’s a huge part of what makes her fascinating and why writers will continue to find new ways to look at her, and new stories to tell.


Source: https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/marian-of-sherwood/

Author adminPosted on March 9, 2022Categories History, LegendsTags British, feminism, Maid Marian, Robin Hood

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